I love it when a good argument breaks out on the internet, and there was a great one the other day, on a LinkedIn writers’ forum of which I’m a member.
Like so many heated debates in the many LI writing forums, this one was about the shockingly low rates of pay being offered for so-called “writing opportunities”.
To give some context to this, the internet is increasingly populated by so-called “content mills”, sites that need text to fill space. The only criteria these mills impose is that the content should pass Copyscape – a program that ensures text has not been directly plagiarised from existing articles. Doesn’t that sound lovely and fluffy and warm? They’re community-minded, they abide by the law, they don’t encourage plagiarism. I’ll return to this point in a moment.
In return, these businesses offer their writers appallingly low pay. They offer $5, $3, sometimes as little as $1, for each article.
Now, in my world, an article takes a good half a day to write. Take a relatively straightforward one-on-one interview. Half an hour, up to an hour, for the interview, then an hour typing up the notes, then a good two hours sorting the notes into a coherent form, to the required length, then an hour trimming, tweaking, improving, self-editing. Where the article demands that original material comes from a variety of sources it can take much, much, longer.
Do the math, as they say in the US, and you can see how the offered $5 for an article translates into bugger all per hour.
Of course, the secret with many of these offers is that they don’t actually want original material. The very fact that they are so anxious to avoid Copyscape detection stems from the fact that what they require their “writers” to do is, essentially, to plagiarise. Offers of “work” are often specifically to “rewrite” articles – they just don’t want to be caught out doing it. One I came across last week wanted people to “rewrite” recipes, at $1 a throw. Now, someone tell me, why would they want a recipe to be rewritten, unless they were copying someone else’s original cookery ideas?
Many of the sites are basically looking for writers from places likes India, where the cost of living is so much lower than in the UK, Europe and US that what we consider to be low pay is acceptable. But I’m constantly surprised by the number of people responding eagerly to these opportunities who are based in Europe and the US. “I’m really interested” they’ll post in response to the latest offer of “work”, offering details of their experience and links to their published work, not even thinking to consider how much they’ll ultimately receive per hour in return for their work. And I’m convinced that absolutely none of these naives stops to think that they’ll have to pay tax out of their meagre earnings.
I’ve often stopped by these discussions to urge people to think about whether they might not be better off spending their time stacking shelves, or delivering leaflets.
Some sites not only offer stunningly poor pay, they also ask the poor saps who work for them to pay a monthly fee. Which brings me back to the recent discussion. Someone called Ben (I’m changing everyone’s real names) had posted an offer of work paying “up to $25” per article – on content mills peak that usually means “from bugger all”, with the “up to” figure representing the absolute maximum, rarely achieved. After dozens of half-wits had posted their enthusiasm for this opportunity, a guy called Nick pointed out the downside, that the small print revealed there was a $47 a month fee for the privilege of doing the work. He suggested politely that this was a scam.
“No one should have to pay that type of money to find work,” he said.
Impressed by Nigel’s ability to cut to the chase, I added that, having looked at the terms and conditions, it seemed “THERE IS NO GUARANTEE THAT YOU WILL EARN ANY MONEY”. I pointed out that genuine job offers do not charge and suggested that readers steer clear of this opportunity.
Ben popped up at this stage to deny he was running a scam. He said it was a business opportunity, like a McDonald’s franchise. “Do you just walk into corporate headquarters and say,”Hey I want to own a McDonald’s franchise, give me one please, I have no money………”? he asked. “Sometimes it takes money to make money”.
I suggested that the analogy with a McDonald’s franchise didn’t hold water. A franchisee is buying a stake in a company whose name is known globally and whose business model is proven to work. The buyer, I pointed out, has a genuine opportunity to generate satisfactory revenues and profits – and McDonald’s can supply evidence of its financial standing, marketing investment and commercial probity.
I said that comparisons with a burger bar might more accurately be drawn with McDonald’s offering to employ a trainee burger flipper at minimum wage but only on the condition that he returns most of his wages in the form of a fee.
Nick came in at this point to back me up, saying the work required to break even, by selling $564 worth of articles a year, would be extremely difficult, especially given that there might not be sufficient quantity of jobs available to achieve this.
Ben replied that the monthly fee was “the cost of doing business” and would be a tax write-off. This enraged someone called Patricia, who retorted, quite rightly, that “no-one should ever pay to work”. She accused Ben of taking writing as a career down a notch and commented that he obviously had “suckers” willing to pay him with no guarantee of earning any money in return.
This cut Ben to the quick: he said Patricia should keep her “rude” opinions to herself and added: “Have a great day! I am going to make some money.”
Another forum member, Kath, said he wouldn’t be making any of his money off of her back and said she’d rather buy lottery tickets than pay him. This neatly reminded me that I’d intended to invest in the Euromillions lottery, and off I went to buy a ticket.
I got back to find that things were getting personal – Patricia had called Ben a “creep” and accused him of making money off “desperate losers”. This prompted Ben to suggest Patricia attended an anger management class. “Get out of the house and enjoy the world, you might even make new friends,” he suggested.
In his own defence, to prove he wasn’t a creep, Ben claimed to have worked for the US army, air force and police force, somewhat apropos of nothing, I felt. He’d even been “Police Officer Of The Year”! Though perhaps not employer of the year, I thought.
I asked if, when he was carrying out his various civic duties, he’d have considered “up to” $25 to be fair pay for hours of work, and whether he’d have been prepared to pay a monthly fee to his employers for the privilege of getting an unspecified bit of work from them now and then? I questioned whether perhaps he considered writers’ skills, effort and professionalism less worthy than his own?
This is a fundamental issue in a world where “writing opportunities” and those willing to cast all considerations of cost-effectiveness out of the window in order to get those opportunities, are freely available on the internet.
Everyone thinks they can write and almost everyone, it seems, is willing to do it for next to nothing. Do you ever find accountants, plumbers, bricklayers, lawyers, vets – anyone other than writers – willing to work for peanuts despite having training, qualifications and experience in their field? Do you ever find anyone expecting them to do so?